CARLO CELLI. The Divine Comic: The Cinema of Roberto Benigni. Lanham, Maryland, and London: The Scarecrow Press, 2001. 175 pages. $32.50.
Carlo Celli offers English-language readers the first important monographic introduction to the cinematic art of Roberto Benigni. Meticulously researched and eminently readable, Celli's volume documents Benigni's rise from obscurity to household-name status. Most North Americans have come to know of Benigni through his 1997 film La vita e bella/Life is Beautiful, which garnered a record number of Academy Awards for a foreign film, as well as many other honors throughout the world. Since that meteoric rise to international fame, Benigni has directed and starred in another film, Pinocchio (2002), in which he tells the story, in a very straightforward narrative style, of Italy's most famous non-human literary character. But most North Americans are unaware of the biographical details of Benigni's life or earlier career, which encompassed film, television, and theatre.
Born in 1952, Roberto Benigni was reared in poverty such as the vast majority of contemporary North Americans could not imagine. Celli argues that, as a result of his having grown up in a culture closer to the realities of the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century, Benigni acquired skills and developed an awareness that permitted him to develop his unique style of comedy. This comic style is based on the oral poetic traditions of his native Tuscany and on the artist's acute consciousness of the "cultural tensions and transformations" (2) of the Italy of his childhood and adolescence.
Following the fall of Mussolini during World War II and the birth of the Republican era after the war's end, Italy underwent social, political, and economic changes that transformed it from an agriculturally-based nation to one that was and continues to be consumer- and industrial-based. So profound were these changes that "the national economy grew by nearly 47 percent" (2) during the 1950s alone, according to Celli. Yet despite these rapid cultural and economic changes, many parts of Italy still retained much older traditions, whose roots, in some cases, reached at least as far back as the Middle Ages.
For Benigni, the ancient Tuscan tradition of improvisation in octet verse form, which he learned as a youth, formed the foundation upon which he built his performance techniques. Much like medieval minstrels, the traditional Tuscan poeti a braccio spontaneously composed poems, often bawdy, either individually or in competition with one other. A keen memory, a quick wit, and an ease of comic performance style are all requisites in this apparently crude yet culturally sophisticated form, still alive (though barely) today: Benigni tells us that "the only person with whom I have these poetry contests is Umberto Eco.... He is incredible in linguistic games but he enjoys challenging me in something where I am better prepared than he is" (129).
Benigni's adaptation of these skills is easily identifiable in films such as Johnny Stecchino (1991) and II mostro/The Monster (1994), both of which Benigni directed, as well as in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law (1986).
Before becoming a film director and actor, Benigni was engaged in various other artistic and intellectual endeavors. In the 1970s, Benigni and a few fellow artists moved to Rome, where Benigni performed in avant-garde theatrical productions with noted impresarios. It was during this period that Benigni, who did not study at university, began to read widely (particularly Rabelais, Dostoyevsky, Whitman) and to develop a serious interest in silent film (especially Chaplin and Dreyer). In 1975, Benigni co-wrote with Giuseppe Bertolucci a monologue entitled Cioni Mario di Gaspare fu Giulia/Mario Cioni Son of Gaspare and the Late Giulia, which features a foulmouthed country bumpkin from Tuscany who is angry at priests, politicians, women, and the world at large. …